Saturday, December 29, 2007


I was the only one staying in my apartment this Shabbat. On Friday, I felt very sleepy. At about noon, I decided to take a nap, and set my alarm for 2 PM.

However the alarm didn't do its job. When I woke up, everything was dark. With some difficultly, I managed to read the clock on my wall, by the light of the streetlights outside my window. What I saw shocked me.

It was about 11:30 PM. I had overslept by 9 and a half hours. There had never been a Shabbat like this in my life. I checked to be sure it was indeed Shabbat, by looking out my window at the central bus station (far away but visible from my hilltop apartment). It was closed and dark - on a weekday a few buses would have still been running.

After cleaning myself up a bit I sat down to the only Shabbat meal I could have at that hour. I ended up eating cold (though somewhat tasty) leftovers, sitting in the darkness.

I felt like such a Sadducee.

Thoughts on Shemot

The first mention of the Egyptian slavery is Breishit 15:13, when God tells Avraham that "your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs, and shall serve them 400 years".

This prediction is strange in the context it comes in. There is no clear background on what led to the decree. And following this brief mention, the issue of eventual slavery seems to disappear from the book. As I suggested, there seems to be an causual chain of events throughout Breishit, which inevitably leads to slavery in Egypt. But this chain is really an example of "how", not "why"; the "why" for slavery remains unclear.

Perhaps we can gain some insight by looking at the story which immediately follows Brit Bein Habetarim (Breishit 15, in which the promise of slavery is made). In chapter 16, Sarah is childless. She has Avraham take Hagar, an Egyptian woman, as a second wife. When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah becomes displeased with her and oppresses her. Nevertheless, Hagar goes on to gives birth to a son (Ishmael), while Sarah remains childless.

This reminds me of the Israelites' experience in Egypt, but with the ethnicities reversed. In that second story, it was the Egyptians who invited Jews into their country. When the Israelites began to reproduce abnormally fast, it worried the Egyptians, who tried to compensate by oppressing the Israelites. But that failed, as the Israelites only continued to reproduce.

Due to the multiple similarities between the stories, I wonder if Sarah sinned in her treatment of Hagar the Egyptian, and if the oppression of Sarah's descendants is a measure-for-measure punishment for her misdeed. There are probably additional reasons for the slavery, but this could be one significant contributing factor.

If so, this would provide a clear linkage between chapters 15 and 16. Excluding the Avimelech episodes in chapters 20 and 21 (which I'm not really sure the purpose of), chapters 15 and 16 are the only stories in Avraham's life which did not seem to be closely thematically interwoven with what comes before and after them. I think we have now identified the connection between them.

(In principle, there's no reason why "random details that had to be mentioned somewhere" couldn't be thrown it at some random point. But it's much cooler if you can justify the placement as well as the existence of each story.)

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef. (1:8)

The simplest interpretation of this line is that the new king knew Yosef's legacy, but chose to ignore it.

But it's also possible that at some point Yosef really became unknown. The ancient Egyptians had a tendency, especially around the time period the Israelites were there, to erase all historical records of whatever was inconvenient to them. And Yosef, because of his "abominable" Hebrew ancestry and his (presumable controversial) political and economic policies, would seem to be a likely target for historical censorship.

[Yocheved] became pregnant and bore a son. She saw that he was good, and concealed him for three months. (2:2)
He was good - when he was born, the whole house filled with light. (Rashi)

2:2 is a difficult line - what does it mean for a baby to be "good", and why would a mother choose to save only "good" babies? A couple possibilities suggest themselves to me (and other people): perhaps the baby was healthy and likely to survive (thus worth endangering oneself in order to save), or else was well-behaved (thus unlikely to cry constantly and reveal himself to Egyptians).

Rashi seems to take a different approach: that due to Moshe's historical importance, unusual effort had to be put into saving him. In order to explain how Moshe's future role was recognized by Yocheved, Rashi says that a miraculous light filled his house. As Siftei Hachamim points out, there is a precedent for equating the phrase "it was good" with light, in the Breishit creation story.

Now, Breishit 1:4 is not the only place in the Torah where the phrase "it was good" ("ki tov") appears. So please indulge me as I compose a midrash of my own, which probably relies on the same thought process as the original. Elsewhere, we see restfulness equated with good: "vayar menucha ki tov". Therefore, when the Torah says that baby Moshe was "ki tov", it may be saying that he constantly slept all the time. Therefore he did very little crying, and hiding him did not endanger his mother's life.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thoughts on Vayechi

After Yosef successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dreams, Pharaoh delegated to him virtually unlimited power. And yet, in the last two weeks' parshas, it is striking that in one particular sphere Yosef has no independence whatsoever. Regarding his own family - the brothers' arrival in Egypt, Yaakov's burial, etc. - Yosef feels the need to consult Pharaoh for permission before taking any decision, however small.

It seems that this oversight is motivated by concerns about Yosef's loyalty. When they first came down to Egypt, Yosef accused his 10 brothers of being spies. Yosef knew this was a false accusation, but how could Pharaoh have known? And how could Pharaoh have known that Yosef, for all his talents, would not be tempted to rebel? He was, after all, a despised "Asiatic" foreigner just like his family. Perhaps he shared their likely lack of concern for the existing political order in Egypt.

Of course, Yosef in fact has no plans to overthrow Pharaoh, and Pharaoh probably doesn't really expect him to try. But still, this is an area in which extra prudence is called for, and Yosef is smart enough not to allow any doubts to arise.

This reminds me of the situation in Potiphar's house, where Yosef controlled everything, except for Potiphar's wife. Similarly, here, Yosef had absolute control of everything in Egypt, except in relation to Pharaoh's "household", i.e. the monarchy and dynastic line.

[Yaakov] blessed them on that day, saying: "By you shall Israel bless, saying: 'God make you like Efraim and like Menashe.' " (48:20)

What does this blessing mean, and what is Efraim and Menashe's special quality which makes it a blessing to be compared to them?

I think the answer comes in the next two verses:
"Yisrael said to Yosef: 'Behold, I shall die; but God will be with you, and will bring you back to the land of your fathers. And I have given you one portion more than your brothers...' "

It seems that the blessing of Efraim and Menashe is related to the assignment of a double portion to Yosef's descendants. Yosef's brothers all received a single portion. In contrast, despite everything he went through (i.e. being thrown out of the family for decades), Yosef was unexpectedly rewarded with a double portion before Yaakov's death.

The blessing mentions Efraim and Menashe, the two sons who personify Yosef's double portion. It therefore expresses the hope we overcome adversity to not only reach our expected levels of accomplishment, but to surpass them.

Binyamin is a ravaging wolf; in the morning he consumes plunder, and in the evening he divides spoils. All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this what their father said to them and blessed them; each one he blessed according to his blessing. And he commanded them and said to them: "I am gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers, in the cave in Efron the Hittite's field..." (49:27-29)

The white spaces in a Torah scroll, otherwise known as parshiyah breaks, are almost always a good indication of the Torah's structure (though much less so for certain parts of Nach). But here, a parshiyah break separates Binyamin's blessing from his brothers' blessings, but not from the story of death which follows it. What can possibly lead the Torah to apparently "lump in" Binyamin's blessing with topics which are pretty much unrelated?

(Note: To grasp my explanation, it will immensely help to have a Torah scroll open to parshat Vayechi. If that's impractical, a Koren Tanach or a "tikkun", which have the same formatting, work equally well. :-) )

We can answer the question by saying there are two distinct types of parshiyah breaks - one "thematic" and one "stylistic". A "thematic" parshiyah break separates distinct sections or stories from one another. A "stylistic" parshiyah break (which occurs WITHIN a thematic parshiyah) indicates more minute distinctions, usually between individual items in a list. They can be seen as a looser version of the formatting used in (for example) Az Yashir. Everyone agrees that Az Yashir is a single thematic section, even though it has white space inserted in many places.

Here, Yaakov's blessings to the 12 sons are all part of one thematic section, even though there is white space between each of them. In fact, the blessings are not the only things in the section. The section actually begins with verse 49:1, when Yaakov gathers his sons together for the blessing. It continues with 1) the blessings themselves, 2) Yaakov's death and burial, 3) the brothers begging Yosef for forgiveness, and 4) Yosef's death, at the very end of Sefer Breishit. All this would be one continuous flow of text, were it not for the "stylistic" breaks inserted between the 12 sons' blessings.

To analyze such a long section, you break it down into thematic "sub-sections" as I have just done (1 through 4). These sub-sections are not separated by white space. But, within the first sub-section ("the 12 sons' blessings"), each blessing IS separated by white space. Thus Binyamin's blessing "appears" to be connected to what comes after it, because there is no white space. But in fact, it is separated from what follows by an invisible sub-section-break, and actually connects to the blessings before it, though it is spatially separate from them.

We see a very similar phenomenon in Devarim 33 - Moshe's blessing of Israel. Here, the 12 blessings are all separated from each other, but the first and last blessings (Reuven and Asher) are not separated from what comes (respectively) before and after them. Once again, the sub-section of blessings does not have a parshiyah break before or after it, but it does have stylistic breaks in the middle.

Another example is the story of Adam and Eve. There is a parshiyah break between each of the three curses (snake, woman, man). But there are no breaks either before or after the curses, or elsewhere in the story. Here the curses form a sub-section with stylistic breaks inside it.

One more instance is Vayikra 18. It is clear that there are two sets of prohibitions in this chapter: 1) incestuous relations, referred to as "uncovering nakedness", and 2) various other sexual sins, not called "uncovering nakedness". The first set has a parshiyah break between each verse, while the second set is a continuous run-on of verses. How should we categorize verse 18:17, which is on the boundary between the two sets? On one hand it talks about incest and "nakedness"; on the other hand it is part of the continuous run-on. But applying our previous model, it is clear that the sub-section on incest ends after verse 18:17, and the parshiyah break before 18:17 is simply stylistic, like the other parshiyah breaks in the incest sub-section.

[Yaakov's burial party] came to Goren Haatad, which is beyond the Jordan, and they lamented a very great and deep lamentation; and [Yosef] mourned for his father seven days. (50:10)

Yaakov died in Egypt and was buried in Hevron. Why would his burial party go to Goren Haatad for the mourning ceremony? Wherever exactly Goren Haatad is, it's definitely "beyond the Jordan" River and thus in modern-day Jordan - very far off the road leading from Egypt to Hevron.

It seems to me that the only conceivable significance of "beyond the Jordan" in this context is that Esav lives there. By this time, it's likely that none of Yaakov's family lived in Hevron. So it did not make sense to perform all the ceremonies there. It would be much more sensible to visit Yaakov's brother, and hold the "shivah" at his house in southern Jordan, with only a quick detour to Hevron for the actual burial procedure.

(The gemara in Sotah 13a connects Goren Haatad to Esav as well, but for different reasons.)

(UPDATE: fixed a stupid mistake and did some editing - i.e. basically corrected for the fact that this was written at 1AM)

Thursday, December 20, 2007


"Did you hear, Shloime, like, died."

"Oh that is so sad. When is the funeral?"

"There is no funeral."

"Why not?"

"Well because he is still breathing."

"So on what basis did you say that he is dead?"

"Because the doctor pronounced him, like, dead."

"LIKE dead?"

"Yes, LIKE dead."

"Which doctor?"

"Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler."


"Shloime was in an accident and is now brain dead."

(Not that I intend to take a position one way or another on this controversy. And I must credit the source which inspired this post.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

A beautiful and informative view

Today is an incredibly clear day, and from my window in Haifa I can see the Hermon, bright and clear, an apparently little white hill on the horizon.

The Hermon's peak is 2814 meters above sea level, so it should tower above the Israeli mountains in front of it, whose elevations are 500-1000 meters. Why then does the Hermon appear only slightly higher than them?

This is due to the curvature of the earth. A quick trigonometric calculation reveals that, at about 120 km away from me, objects should appear about 1100 meters lower than their actual height. An apparently 1700-meter-high Hermon will of course appear much smaller against a 1000-meter backdrop than a 2814-meter high mountain would. (I'm neglecting the smaller impact of the earth's curvature on the nearby Israeli mountains.)

Today was so clear I had even hoped to see Cyprus, which has mountains almost as tall as the Hermon. However, another quick calculation shows that is impossible. At 300 km away from me, the earth's curvature will cause Cyprus to be depressed by 7000 meters. If Mount Everest were located on Cyprus I might be able to see it. But it's physically impossible to see Cyprus as it in fact exists today.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Strike Four

Yesterday I visited Haifa University library on one of my periodic quests for reading material (my university's library has only textbooks plus a few trashy romance novels and the like). The bus took an unexpected route and let me off far away from the center of campus. Walking towards that center, I saw it was blocked off by construction barriers, partially burnt tires, and other protest paraphernelia.

It's well known that the least favorite part of many professors' lives is teaching undergrads. So don't be surprised that Israeli professors, in their strike, cynically chose to stop teaching classes while continuing with their research. As the strike continues and it looks more and more likely that the semester will be canceled, the Haifa University students have became fed up with being held hostage to the professors' demands. If students' graduation will be delayed six months due to others' convenience, then at least let those others suffer along with them by not being able to work. Hence the attempted closing of campus.

I was lucky enough to take all my required courses last year, and the courses I'm TAing and grading are taught by non-faculty lecturers, so the professor strike has a negligible effect on me.

By the way, did you hear the midrash about Avraham when he left Haran? Eventually he reached Eretz Yisrael and saw that nobody was working - they were all on strike. He said "I hope my portion is not in this land." At that moment Hashem told him, "TOO BAD!!!"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thoughts on Miketz

It came to pass after two years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold! he stood by the Nile. And, behold! there came up out of the river seven good-looking and fat cows, and they fed in the reeds. And, behold! seven other cows came up after them out of the river, ugly and skinny, and stood by the other cows on the riverbank. The ugly and skinny cows ate up the seven good-looking and fat cows, and Pharaoh awoke. He slept and dreamed a second time, and, behold! seven sheaves grew on one stalk, lush and good. And, behold! seven sheaves, thin and blasted by the east wind, sprouted after them. The thin sheaves swallowed up the seven lush and full sheaves. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold! it was a dream. (41:1-7)

The word "vehineh" ("and, behold") indicates the sudden appearance and recognition of something unexpected. It is therefore appropriate for dreams, in which events evolve spontaneously from one another with little concern for the rules of logic. Thus, every few words in the dream description, there is an "and behold!" to indicate that another random dream-image is appearing without rhyme or reason or predictability.

In fact, when "vehineh" appears multiple times within a few verses in the Torah, it is usually in the context of a dream. This is the case for Yaakov's ladder dream and Yosef's bowing down dreams, as well as Pharaoh's dreams here.

A similar case is brit bein habetarim, where God appears to Avraham in a "vision", and "vehineh" is used three times (verses 4, 12, 17) to describe his experiences. This "vision" is not quite a dream, since he is more or less awake for much of it, but it has the same unpredictability that dreams do. (At the risk of sounding flippant, I would say that Avraham here views the world as if under the influence of a psychedelic drug.)

The only other occasions in the Torah on which "and behold" is used repeatedly are in describing the appearance of tzaraat (Shemot 4:6-7, Vayikra 13-14, Bamidbar 12:10). What the connection is between tzaraat and dreams, I have no idea.

Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand, and put it upon Yosef's hand, and clothed him in fine-linen garments, and put the gold chain about his neck. (41:42)

What is "the" gold chain which Yosef now gets to wear? We see here and here that it was a very distinctive type of collar frequently worn by pharoahs. Perhaps it was therefore a symbol not only of wealth, but of royal authority, like the signet ring which Yosef received at the same time.

Interestingly, the striped coat which made Yosef's brothers jealous may have had the same purpose. It was quite possibly a symbol that Yaakov had chosen Yosef as the future leader of the 12 tribes. If so, then Yosef could have seen this as vindication of him and a sign that his dreams were finally beginning to come true.

The next morning he was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all of its wise men, and Pharaoh told them his dream; but none could interpret them to Pharaoh. (41:8)

Pharaoh speaks of a single dream, but the interpreters speak in the plural. It may be that Pharoah knew instinctively that the dreams had the same message, yet the interpreters insisted on interpreting them separately. The very first words of Yosef's interpretation are "Pharaoh's dream is one." Thus, intentionally or not, he immediately hits on the exact point that Pharaoh insisted on so strongly, against the opinion of all the magicians. This demonstrates either incredible skill or incredible luckiness (read: Divine providence) on Yosef's part. Pharaoh assumes the former, which is why he is then so enthusiastic about giving Yosef authority and power.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Shabbat Guard

A program which automatically shuts down your web site at different times for different people, based on the location of the person visiting the site.

As the site says, "When a visitor comes from a place that's already Shabbat - your web site will be closed for him, while for one that arrives from a place that it is not yet Shabbat - your web site will be opened."

The obvious question is: The only people likely to buy this are Orthodox Jews, and how can they be sure that it works? Wherever they go to test it, if they themselves aren't breaking Shabbat, there will be no indication that the software is running! (The obvious answer: learn to use SSH.)

Sometimes, Google ads are interesting enough to click on even when you know you won't buy anything. I clicked this time, and this is what I found.

Artscroll "translation"

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ezer Kenegdo

What does the phrase "ezer kenegdo" mean? Does it mean man and women are facing each other? Confronting one another? One serving the other?

We find the answer in parshat Vayishlach.

[Esav] said: "Let us go and travel, and I will walk lenegdecha." (33:12)

Esav is suggesting that he and Yaakov walk together, side by side, to a common destination. Not that one walks normally while the other awkwardly backpedals in front of him!

Similarly "ezer kenegdo" means that the husband and wife are walking side by side. Not coincidentally, that's the way that couples normally do walk. So when you next see a man and woman walking side by side, think: that is how God intended them to relate to one another, and how God defined their relationship.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


According to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (6:3), one should say "Hashem" and not "Adoshem" when using God's name in a non-ritual context.

However, R' Soloveitchik seems to have disagreed, as you can see for your self 52 minutes 28 seconds into this recording.

Isn't modern technology great?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Real Brisk

Real Briskers don't go to Gush. They get their shiurim here and here.

Thoughts on the Avot

May you grant truth to Yaakov, kindness to Avraham, as you swore to our fathers from ancient times. (Michah 7:20)

Jewish tradition has associated Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov with the qualities of chessed (kindness), gevurah (strength), and emet (truth) respectively. With Avraham this makes sense: we know from his early stories that he is extraordinarily hospitable and selfless and otherwise kind.

But it is hard to see how Yitzchak exemplifies strength, or Yaakov truth. Strength is perhaps the quality we see least from Yitzchak; he doesn't resist when his hundred-something-year-old father brings him as a sacrifice, and he refrains from purposeful action after Yaakov steals Esav's blessing. Similarly, Yaakov apparently lies to his father and deceives Lavan. How can we possibly say that he exemplifies truth?

Indeed, it's even hard to say that Avraham consistently behaves kindly. On separate occasions he expels his children - Yishmael and Keturah's sons - from his home, and he is willing to kill Yitzchak on God's command. These actions appear to reflect an extreme lack of kindness. It therefore seems that the actions of all three of the Avot contradict the attributes ascribed to them!

We are forced to say that chessed, gevurah, and emet represent not any particular deeds of the Avot, but rather their innate personality traits. Avraham, as we can see in the initial stories, possessed a powerful desire to be kind to everyone he met. We can similarly say that Yitzchak, by his constitution, was never willing to accept defeat or the triumph of evil. And Yaakov was indeed an "ish tam yoshev ohalim", who longed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

If so, how do we explain the stories in which these qualities are not on display?

I think the answer is that the Torah does not tell us day-to-day stories of the Avot (or anyone else), but rather the most monumental and important events of their lives. Indeed, there were presumably many, many incidents in which Avraham demonstrated kindness, Yitzchak strength, and Yaakov truth. But these incidents were not the most important incidents in their lives, so the Torah does not mention most of them.

A person whose nature is kind will find it easy to perform kindness. But occasionally one is morally required to perform acts of apparent cruelty. Morality often requires that soldiers, surgeons, and politicians, for example, act in ways antithetical to the trait of kindness. A harsh or cruel person will find these deeds relatively easy, while having trouble with good deeds that require a more personal touch. For a kind person, things will be the other way round. Such is the case with every character trait, not just kindness.

For Avraham, the supremely kind person, the hardest conceivable moral challenge was to slaughter his son. For Yitzchak, whose personality would never allow him to submit to injustice, the hardest challenge was to allow himself to be slaughtered. And for Yaakov, who could never countenance falsehood, the hardest challenge was to deceive Yitzchak (or Lavan or Esav) when circumstances impelled it. In each case, the Avot's uniquely strong character traits were precisely those that had to be suppressed in order to carry out their most difficult missions.

Every person finds it easy to do good in some ways, according to the nature of their personality. But true spiritual greatness comes only when you are capable of overcoming your limitations, and do what is right even when it contradicts the inclinations of your character. This is where the Avot succeeded, and this is the ultimate goal that each of us should aspire to.

(Mostly taken from a shiur by R' Binyamin Tabory)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thoughts on Toldot

Let's compare Yitzchak's command to Esav (27:3-4), to Rivkah's recounting of that command to Yaakov (27:7).

יצחקלפי רבקה
ועתה שא נא כליך תליך וקשתך, וצא השדה, וצודה לי ציד.הביאה לי ציד
ועשה לי מטעמים כאשר אהבתיועשה לי מטעמים
והביאה לי ואכלה ואכלה
בעבור תברכך נפשיואברככה
לפני ה'
בטרם אמות.לפני מותי.

Rivkah's description is very accurate. Everything that Yitzchak said she repeats in more efficient language.

But there is also one thing she adds, which wasn't in Yitzchak's statement: the words "lifnei Hashem".

This change seems to reflect a deep misunderstanding between Yitzchak and Rivkah regarding the purpose of the blessing. Looking at the text of the blessing which Yitzchak thought he was giving to Esav, we see it is all about material success. The "consolation" blessing which Esav gets later is also about material success. In contrast, Yitzchak's blessing to Yaakov (28:3-4) speaks of Yaakov's receiving "the blessing of Avraham" - the spiritual inheritance which was passed down through the Avot and later through the Jewish people. Yitzchak never intended to bless Esav "before God". Both Esav and Yaakov were to be blessed, but only Yaakov's blessing was to be "before God".

Rivkah did not realize that this was Yitzchak's intention. She thought there would be only one blessing - which, by necessity, would be spiritual. And of course, only Yaakov could be the correct recipient for this blessing. Thus she inserted the words "lifnei Hashem" which Yitzchak had, in fact, purposefully refrained from using.

The misunderstanding between Yitzchak and Rivkah is part of a chain of events which resonates throughout Jewish history. Rivkah's misunderstanding led Yaakov to take Esav's blessing, which forced Yaakov to flee penniless to Haran, which allowed Lavan to trick Yaakov, which forced Yaakov to take two mutually antagonistic wives, which led to bitter conflict between Yaakov's children, which resulted in Yosef's sale to Egypt, which eventually caused the entire family to descend to Egypt and enter slavery.

I would like to extend this chain of causation in the other direction, back to God's promise to Avraham that "your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs, and shall serve them..." (15:13) In the immediate aftermath of the Akedah (22:19) we hear that "Avraham" returns to Beer Sheva. Presumably Yitzchak is with him, but the lack of mention hints at a disconnect between them. Perhaps we may say that Yitzchak was permanently traumatized by the Akedah. Having his trust in his father so violently betrayed, he was unable to fully trust in anyone else for the rest of his life. The most notable consequence of this lack of trust was the misunderstanding over Yaakov and Esav's blessings.

If so, then we can trace the prophecy's inexorable progression through the generations, from Avraham's lifetime until its eventual fulfillment centuries later. While none of the characters involved could have realized what they were doing, in the end each of them contributed to the fulfillment of the Divine plan.

As Yosef says to his brothers, "You planned to do evil to me, yet God planned that it be for good, so that I might now save the lives of many people." (45:5) But even Yosef perceived only one small fraction of his contribution: the temporary escape from famine, but not the eventual enslavement and redemption which would follow from his descending to Egypt.

This is the book of generations of man: When God created man, He made him in the image of God. Male and female he made them, and he called them Adam/Mankind when He created them. Adam lived 130 years... [begin genealogy] (Breishit 5:1-3)

These are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitzchak. Yitzchak was 40 years old when he took Rivkah - daughter of Betuel the Aramean from Padan-Aram, sister of Lavan the Aramean - as his wife. Yitzchak entreated Hashem regarding his wife, since she was barren... (25:19-21)

What do these two selections have in common? 1) They are both "These-are-the-generations" formulas, indicating of the beginning of two of the sections of Sefer Breishit. 2) They both include a couple lines of background information, well-known from the previous stories, before the "real" story.

It seems that each "generations" section is intended to be self-contained. Therefore, each section begins with a brief summary of the necessary background information - the creation of man, and the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah, respectively. Perhaps you have read the preceding chapters and know this information already. But stylistically, in order to make clear that it is distinct from the other sections, each section assumes that perhaps you haven't.

These are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitzchak. (25:19)

Why must Avraham be mentioned (twice!) as Yitzchak's father? I think this is because - contrary to all expectations, due to Avraham's importance to the story - there is no section of Sefer Breishit entitled "These are the generations of Avraham". To account for this "gap" in the section headers, Avraham is mentioned in the headers of his sons - Yitzchak here, and Yishmael in 25:12. (Other than Yishmael and Yitzchak, no person's "generations" in Sefer Breishit mention their father.)

Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother. He took Rivkah and she became his wife, and Yitzchak was comforted after his mother['s death]. (24:67)
Rivkah took the best clothes of Esav her older son, which were with her in the house, and dressed Yaakov her younger son. (27:15)

When she first married Yitzchak, Rivkah was living in a tent, like Avraham and Sarah had. But by the time Yitzchak grew old enough to bless his kids, she was now living in a house.

If we look throughout Sefer Breishit, the term "house of" is used many times to refer to a person's family. But as far as I know, verse 27:15 is the only time when it is used regarding a physical structure. Sefer Breishit mentions over and over that Avraham and Yaakov were living in tents. Here we see that, by the end of his life, Yitzchak was living in a not a tent but a house.

As R' Amnon Bazak explains in an incredible article, Yitzchak succeeded in several ways in which Avraham (and Yaakov) did not. One of these areas was in asserting his connection and right to the land of Israel. We see this in the fact that Yitzchak does not offer to divide the land with someone else (i.e. Lot), nor does he make a covenant with the land's non-Jewish inhabitants (i.e. Avimelech). We see further evidence here, where instead of moving from tent to tent like a nomad, Yitzchak builds an immovable and permanent "house" which demonstrates the strength of his connection to the land.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

News flash!!

The King of Spain told Hugo Chavez to shut up.

In other news, Vladimir Putin started crying after another head-of-state called him a "poopy-head".

Well, actually, I'm making that second one up. But not the first one. You'd think that the world's most influential politicians would have better things to do than hurl playground insults at each other. And the media would have better things to do than to breathlessly report it.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Blood money

Correlation does not *necessarily* indicate causation... but the correlation here is simply incredible.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

In the story in which Rivkah comes to marry Yitzchak, Avraham's servant (whom I'll call Eliezer) tells Rivkah's family about how he met Rivkah that day. Even though the Torah has just told us how it happened, it nevertheless gives us the entire text of Eliezer's explanation - telling us the exact same story, almost word-for-word, all over again.

There are a number of minor, incidental differences between the original story and Eliezer's retelling: changes in word choice and order, omission of irrelevant background information, and so on. Here are two differences that seem, in my mind, to be significant.

1) In the original story, Avraham tells Eliezer to go "to my land and heritage" to find Yitzchak a wife. In Eliezer's retelling, Avraham tells him to go "to my father's house and family".
2) In the original story, Eliezer gives Rivkah jewelry and then asks which family she belongs to. In his recounting, he mentions asking about her family, and only then mentions giving her jewelry.

These two difference apparently have the same cause. From Avraham's instructions, Eliezer did not conclude that Yitzchak's future wife had to be from any particular family. Avraham had only mentioned "my land and heritage" after all; literally, this criteria would be met by any woman in Haran. Indeed, upon arriving in Haran Eliezer made no effort to seek out the "Nachor family", which shouldn't have been hard, but rather went straight to the well to find a woman with good character traits.

But in the end, it "just so happened" that the woman was from Avraham's extended family. Eliezer must have realized that this was how God, and perhaps Avraham, had intended it the entire time. Thus he rephrased Avraham's statement to explicitly mention the woman's family.

Similarly, Eliezer had given Rivkah jewelry as soon as she had watered his camels. As far as he was concerned, the test was over and she had passed. All that was left was to convince her and her family that the marriage should take place, and the jewelry gift was part of that. But once she told him the family name, he realized there was more to the story. In the end, the destined wife was the woman who watered the camels AND who was from Avraham's family. In Eliezer's retelling, he does not give the jewelry until learning that both these conditions are fulfilled.

We need not say that Eliezer intentionally lied in either instance. On one hand, given his excitement at the miracle which had just occurred, he could have stumbled in his speech or erroneously remembered what the plan had been before the excitement began. On the other hand, Avraham's instructions might have alluded to the family (why should Eliezer look for a wife in Haran, but nowhere else, if the reason is the Canaanites' evil?). And regarding the jewelry giving, we should remember that Biblical narratives are often arranged partly thematically and partly chronologically, so Eliezer's speech could simply mean that he now saw the jewelry giving as a consequence of Rivkah's family identity.

Now, a third difference between the accounts which I think matters.

3) In the original story, Avraham release Eliezer from his oath in the case that "the woman does not desire to follow you". In Eliezer's retelling, the case is rather that "they [the family] do not give [the woman] to you".

It seems that Eliezer is just being polite here. He is discussing Rivkah's future with her family. Since they seem to be in charge of deciding whom she'll marry, Eliezer credits them with the ability to prevent her from going.

And yet, in the end Rivkah *is* asked whether she wants the marriage. Thus Avraham's statement, implying that the decision will depend on her, turns out to be correct. This is similar to Avraham's hint that the wife will come from his own family, which also turns out to be correct.

It's not obvious from a superficial reading, but in addition to his other qualities, Avraham appears to have been a pretty impressive prophet!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Thoughts on Sefer Breishit

When referencing Tanach it is normal to mention a chapter and a verse. The chapter divisions were invented by medieval Christians, but have been universally adopted by Jews as well, because no convenient textual divisions exist within Tanach itself. There are parshiyah breaks, but they are too closely spaced and irregular in frequency to be useful. Given that nowadays we don't memorize Tanach and cannot instantly place verses upon hearing them, adoption of the Christian system (or one like it) was probably inevitable.

Sefer Breishit is unique among books of Tanach in that it perhaps has no need for such a system. This is because Sefer Breishit itself contains 10 or 11 "chapter headers" which divide the book into that many sections. Each header consists of the phrase "These are the generations of..." followed by the name of the main character in that section.

The section headers are as follows: [After each header verse, in parentheses, I've summarize the content of the section]

0. In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth. (1:1)
(Six days of creation plus Shabbat. Doesn't mention "generations" - it's sort of a prelude, not a full chapter. It gives background for the rest of Sefer Breishit.)

1. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth in their creation. When Hashem God made earth and heavens... (2:4)
(Adam and Eve; Kayin and Hevel; Adam's son Shet)

2. This is the book of the generations of [man/Adam]. When God made man, in the image of God He made him... (5:1)
(Genealogy from Adam to Noach; mankind does evil)

3. These are the generations of Noach... (6:9)
(The flood)

4. And these are the generations of the sons of Noach... (10:1)
(Division of nations after flood)

5. These are the generations of Shem... (11:10)
(Genealogy from Shem to Avraham)

6. And these are the generations of Terach... (11:27)
(Story of Avraham and Lot. Ends with Avraham's death)

7. And these are the generations of Yishmael, Avraham's son... (25:12)
(Yishmael's descendants)

8. And these are the generations of Yitzchak, Avraham's son... (25:19)
(Story of Yitzchak. Ends with Yitzchak's death)

9. And these are the generations of Esav... (36:1,36:9)
(Esav's descendants)

10. These are the generations of Yaakov... (37:2)
(Yosef story; Yaakov's family goes to Egypt; end of Sefer Breishit)

We notice that Yishmael's "generations" come before Yitzchak's, and Esav's before Yaakov's. This is natural, because Yishmael and Esav were firstborns. But their sections are much shorter - basically just genealogies. In contrast, Yitzchak's and Yaakov's sections are much longer and include lots of interesting stories.

It's somewhat confusing that the stories involving a character do not always correspond to that character's "generations". For example, the first few stories about Yitzchak are in Avraham's (actually Terach's) generations, while the early Yaakov stories are in Yitzchak's generations. This makes it seem like the "Yitzchak section" is actually more about Yaakov. And indeed, Yaakov attracts more of our attention in this section - but still, these stories are within the framework of Yitzchak's life story, until Yitzchak dies. After that point, there are more Yaakov stories, but since Yitzchak is gone, they are now within the framework of Yaakov's own section.

(When I said "after Yitzchak dies", by "after" I meant in terms of the storyline, not chronologically. Sefer Breishit is NOT exactly chronological. Specifically: the deaths of Terach, Avraham, and Yitzchak are recorded immediately after the last story which involves them. This is the case even though these people were still alive later on, when their kids take part in additional stories which don't involve them.)

We also notice that virtually every important male character in Sefer Breishit has a section devoted to him. The exceptions are Yosef (who is within Yaakov's section) and, more surprisingly, Avraham (who is within Terach's section). Wouldn't it have been more natural to name the section after Avraham, not Terach?

I think the answer is that Avraham's story is interwoven with that of Lot. Avraham and Lot are both descended from Terach. The end of Lot's story is when he escapes Sedom and has children with his daughters - who turn out to be the ancestors of the peoples Ammon and Moav. These peoples will go on to live in the "expanded" land of Israel just like Yishmael, Esav, and Yaakov's descendants. Thus they are all part of the same original Divine promise, which apparently was not just to Avraham, but to all the descendants of Terach. Later on, among Terach's descendants, Yishmael/Yitzchak and Esav/Yaakov receive separate sections. But because Lot's genealogy is so brief (19:37-38), and because his entire life story involves Avraham, Avraham and Lot end up appearing in the same section, which overall is named for their common ancestor Terach.

Friday, October 26, 2007

God overturned these cities

I live on the very edge of of the Carmel mountain in Haifa, with an incredible view from my window of Haifa Bay and the Krayot ["towns"], suburbs of Haifa which stretch out in the flood plain below me.

This time of year, reading about the plain of Sedom being destroyed while Avraham watches from the mountain of Hevron, I can't help imagining that instead of Sedom/Amora/Admah/Tzeboim being destroyed, it's Kiryat Yam/Kiryat Haim/Kiryat Motzkin/Kiryat Bialik. Perhaps the angels will relent, and in the end Kiryat Ata will be spared. Meanwhile, from my perch in Haifa I get to watch the whole extravaganza.

The sulferous chemicals (though I can't smell them from here) and burning waste gases from the oil refinery do nothing to dispel this impression.

I apologize to all the nice people who live in the Krayot.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

And that's a winner!

Why throughout the 1990s, every kid in Africa wore shirts saying Buffalo Bills - Super Bowl Champs.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Good morning, good night

Compare the following two brachot, one which we say every morning and one every night. I have never seen them mentioned in connection to one another, yet they are extremely similar and thus presumably have the same source, function, and meaning. Identical or near-identical language is in bold.
ברוך אתה ה אלוקנו מלך העולםברוך אתה ה אלוקנו מלך העולם
המפיל חבלי שינה על עיני ותנומה על עפעפי, ומאיר לאישון בת עין.המעביר שינה מעיני ותנומה מעפעפי.
ויהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוקי ואלוקי אבותיויהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוקינו ואלוקי אבותינו
שתשכיבני לשלום ותעמידני לחיים טובים ולשלוםשתרגילנו בתורתך ודבקנו במצוותיך
ואל יבהלוני רעיוני וחלומות רעים והרהורים רעים, ותהא מיטתי שלמה לפניך, ואל תביאנו לא לידי חטא ולא לידי עברה ועוון ולא לידי נסיון ולא לידי בזיון, ואל ישלוט בנו יצר הרע, והרחיקנו מאדם רע ומחבר רע, ודבקנו ביצר הטוב ובמעשים טובים, וכוף את יצרנו להשתבעד לך,
והאר עיני פן אישן המות.ותננו היום ובכל יום לחן לחסד ולרחמים בעיניך ובעיני כל רואינו, ותגמלנו חסדים טובים.
ברוך אתה ה המאיר לעולם כולו בכבודו.ברוך אתה ה הגומל חסדים טובים לעמו ישראל.

Each bracha consists of the following sections, as shown in the Hebrew above:

1. Intro
2. Summary of bracha subject: eyes opening/closing = waking/sleeping
3. Intro to request
4. Positive request: what we hope to do while awake/asleep
5. Negative request: against yetzer hara
6. Mentions eyes
7. Conclusion

I think it's clear, based on these similarities, that one cannot discuss the meaning or purpose of either bracha without keeping the other bracha in mind.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Good riddance

I just got out of my last final exam (possibly in any course, anywhere, ever). Meaning that "spring semester" is officially over. October 19? Can you believe that? That's all I have to say.

(That and shabbat shalom.)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thoughts on Noach

"And surely, the blood of your lives I will demand; from every animal will I demand it; and from man, even from every man's brother, will I demand the life of man. One who spills a man's blood - by man his blood shall be spilled - for in God's image He made man." (9:5-6)

There are two parts to this statement. In the first God says He will hold people and animals accountable if they kill people. In the second, people are commanded to execute murderers, and an explanation is given for why.

What is the meaning of the explanation? The obvious meaning is that since humans are created in God's image, it is especially serious to kill people, and thus we must be especially sure to punish murder.

I think there is another possibility. In the first half of the statement, it seems that God carries out the punishment for murder. In the second half, people carry out the punishment. From where do people derive the authority to carry out punishments, which were previously the sole responsibility of God?

It appears that since people reflect the Divine, they are given the authority to execute punishments along with God. In the original Hebrew, the phrase "in God's image" is "betzelem elokim". The name of God used here is traditionally held to correspond to the Divine attribute of justice. Indeed this name, "Elokim", in other contexts means "judges". Thus "in God's image" could be loosely translated as "with the capability to judge". Because we reflect God, we therefore have the authority and ability to carry out punishments.

Hashem smelled the sweet smell [of sacrifices], and Hashem resolved: "I will never again curse the earth because of man, since the inclination of man is evil from his youth, and I will never again kill all life as I did." (8:21)

What caused God to make this decision? R' Amnon Bazak points out that the phrase "since the inclination of man is evil from his youth" actually explains why God might want to have another flood, not why in the end God resolves not to. Therefore, the reason for the resolution cannot be found in the resolution's text.

Therefore, we must look to the resolution's context for help. God's resolution comes immediately after Noach offers sacrifices and seems to be a reaction to them. But both our theology and our sensibilities object to the possibility of God's being "bribed" by physical enticements like the smell of burning meat. And in any case, people (Kayin and Hevel and likely others) offered sacrifices before the flood, yet the flood occurred nonetheless. So what about Noach's sacrifices in particular induced God to forswear the possibility of a future flood?

Let us look at Noach and the context in which he offered the sacrifices. The Torah calls Noach righteous, but how righteous was he? Rashi famously observes that Noach walked with God (Breishit 6:9), while Avraham walked before God (17:1). Noach's service of God was passive; he waited for commands and only then fulfilled them, while Avraham would search for spiritual opportunities and fulfill them even before receiving an explicit command. Indeed a survey of Noach's and Avraham's life stories reveals this to be the case, and hints that Avraham was the much more impressive person for that reason.

Yet while Noach had to be commanded to build an ark, to enter the ark, to bring animals into the ark, and even to leave the ark - in no place do we find that he was commanded to offer sacrifices upon descending to the newly exposed land. Rather, he noticed that there were more than two of each kosher animal, discovered within himself the desire to thank God for saving him, and put two and two together and decided to offer sacrifices. For once, perhaps for the only time in his life, Noach behaved not like Noach but like Avraham.

It is in reaction to this that God promises never again to destroy the world. The inclination of humanity is evil, but Noach shows that humanity is capable of self-improvement. The spark of initiative and self-improvement which has been lit within Noach will later grow into a flame, enveloping Avraham, then Moshe, and eventually spreading to encompass the entire world as we some day soon enter the messianic era.

Out of this world

A Malaysian Muslim will be visiting the International Space Station, and the country's religious officials have prepared a list of guidelines for Islamic practice in space. I found the correspondence between this list and Jewish law to be striking.

Praying five times a day can be calculated in a 24-hour duration according to the time zone from where the astronaut was launched — in this case, Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
The time of fasting, usually performed from dawn to dusk on Earth, is according to the time zone of the location from where the astronaut was launched.

I believe the prevailing opinion is that Shabbat and holidays, and presumably fast days and prayer too, are calculated based on the point of liftoff.

Ritual cleansing before prayer can be performed through "dry ablution" — striking both palms of one's hands on a clean surface such as a wall or mirror, with or without clean sand or dust.

In certain situations where there is no water for netilat yadayim, we allow you to rub your hands on a surface or else "wash" them with dirt or sand. (A pre-space-age halacha)

If there is any doubt whether food served is halal, or permissible under Islamic dietary laws, the astronaut can still eat it in order not to starve.

You can eat non-kosher food to prevent starvation. Of course, you should try to avoid such a situation. It's not clear if the Muslims would let you go on the space flight, knowing that the only food available will be non-halal. For Jews that would be prohibited.

A Muslim astronaut should "maintain the relationship with Allah ... observe peace with other beings and maintain sustainability of the space environment."
Facing Mecca to pray is encouraged, but facing the Earth or any direction will still do.
For physical postures during prayer, any standing posture will suffice if upright standing is impossible. If not, the astronaut can sit, lie flat or simply imagine the prayer sequence.
IN CASE OF DEATH: The deceased should be brought back to Earth for a Muslim funeral. If that is impossible, the deceased should be buried in space with "a simple funeral process."

Can't argue with what appears to be common sense.

DRESS CODE: A male Muslim astronaut should be clothed from the navel to the knee, while a female should cover her entire body except for her face and hands below the wrist.

The female dress code sounds about right... for Meah Shearim.

FASTING: The astronaut can choose to postpone fasting until after returning to Earth.

I wonder if we have some comparable possibility - regarding the minor fast days, it may perhaps be the case. If a fast is scheduled for Shabbat, we move it to a neighboring day...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Thoughts on Lemech

Adam improperly ate from the fruit of the tree; as punishment the ground is cursed and can only be farmed through hard labor. Kayin was a farmer who killed a herder; as punishment he is even further divorced from the land; specifically he is forced to take up a herder's lifestyle.

In verses 4:18-24 we read about Lemech (the first person by that name). He is notable for his kids beginning careers: livestock herding, music playing, instruments of war. He is also noted for his poem to his wives: unlike Kayin he did not kill anyone, so his protection is greater than Kayin's. Each of his wives had one son with a money-earning career (herding/war), then one child with presumably no productive career (the music playing son/the daughter Naamah).

Herding, and being a warrior (or hunter, or tool-seller), are stereotypical careers for someone divorced from the produce of the land. It makes sense that Lemech in particular would direct his sons to these careers, since he is aware of the curse which Adam and Kayin had incurred. (This awareness is clear in his poem, and is also indicated in the name Tuval-Kayin.)

Meanwhile, the OTHER Lemech (descended from Adam's son Shet, not Kayin) names his kid Noach, hoping that the kid "will comfort us from our doings and from the sadness of our hands, from the ground which God has cursed" (5:29). And in fact Noach does eventually overcome the curse of the ground, embarking on a (too successful!) agricultural career with his vineyard. The phrase "our doings" in second Lemech's naming may refer to sin: he hopes Noach will rescue them from the curse on the land, which Adam incurred upon sinning.

We see that both Lemechs were unique in their families, in that they dealt so actively with the curses placed on their ancestors. Nobody likes being cursed, and everyone tries their best to avoid curses. But the two Lemechs were presumably uniquely talented or imaginative, so their attempted solutions are recorded for posterity.

However, there is an important difference in HOW the Lemechs dealt with the curses. The first Lemech, realizing that agriculture was no longer productive, apparently trained his kids to pursue a range of alternative careers. God had intended the land to be cursed as punishment, but the punishment could be avoided if one did not live on the land. In a sense, first Lemech tried to subvert the Divine curses. Mankind still deserved to be punished, but in effect one could thwart God's will by avoiding the setting in which punishment was inflicted.

Second Lemech's approach is drastically different. It is not immediately clear what exactly his approach consists of, since no action is ascribed to him after he names and ascribes destiny to Noach. But by looking at how Noach turned out you can deduce what second Lemech was referring to. Specifically, Noach is the first human to be called "tzadik" - righteous. (Whether he is perfectly righteous on Avraham's level or not is irrelevant; he is clearly better than his predecessors.) Second Lemech intended the curse to be removed through the righteous behavior of his son. Noach would repent, and perhaps lead the whole world to repent, and God would have no more reason to curse the ground. What a contrast from first Lemech, who made no attempt to improve his behavior, but only to take practical steps to avoid the effects of the curse!

From this perspective, it is no wonder why first Lemech's family died in the flood, and no wonder why part of second Lemech's family merited to survive it. Even Noach himself is by no means morally blameless, as we see shortly after the flood. But instead of trying to evade God's judgment, he recognizes and confronts it. Even someone who was and will remain imperfect, like Noach, finds that this path leads him in the direction of concrete spiritual accomplishments.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Thoughts on Shemoneh Esreh: Modim

Shemoneh Esreh always begins with the same 3 and ends with the same 3 blessings. These groups of 3 are formally named "shevach" and "hodaah". (Brachot 34a, Shulchan Aruch O.H. 112:1)

Unfortunately, in my opinion, people wrongly assume there's a one-to-one correspondence between the first 3 and last 3 blessings. I think a parallel exists between "shevach" and "hodaah" - but only if "hodaah" is taken to mean the single blessing of Modim. Modim contains 3 distinct sections with separate themes, each of which is linked to one of the first 3 "shevach" blessings.

Modim is significantly longer than any other blessing in the Shemoneh Esreh. The entire Shemoneh Esreh contains 642 words (in the nusach I found online), while Modim contains 94. Do the math and you will find that the other 18 blessings are on average 30.4 words long, so Modim is 3.09 times as long as the average. Thus supporting, perhaps, the idea that Modim is meant to parallel 3 other blessings.

In order to identify the possible sections of Modim, let's start with the obvious. According to the punctuation I will use below (scroll down if you want to see it), Modim contains 6 sentences before the concluding "baruch". Logically enough, I decided to divide these 6 sentences into sections of 2 sentences each.

One striking consequence of this division is the location of the key word "modim/lehodot", which appears 3 times in the blessing, not counting once in the conclusion. The first section begins with "modim", the second section begins with "nodeh", and the third section contains the word "yoducha". As its name indicates, Modim is about "hodaah", and each section mentions "hodaah" once, in two out of three cases right at the beginning. This is strong evidence that the division is correct.

Looking more closely at each section, we see that each has a very distinct theme from the others. Not only that, but these themes closely match the themes of the first 3 blessings of Shemoneh Esreh. This is best shown on a section-by-section basis.

First Section

Modim begins by thanking God for being God. This unusual beginning happens to match the very beginning of the Shemoneh Esreh, virtually word-for-word. Instead of "Blessed are You, Hashem our God and God of our ancestors", we have "We thank You, Hashem for being our God and God of our ancestors". Later on, the phrase "guard who saves us" is virtually the same as the phrase "savior and guard" from that first blessing (Avot). We therefore see that the opening third of Modim consists mostly of verbatim quotes from Avot.

There are also deep halachic parallels between Avot and the first section of Modim: both involve bowing down, and both Avot and (according to some opinions) Modim invalidate Shemoneh Esreh if said without concentration [kavanah]. Neither bowing nor concentration is necessary for any other blessing. (The other blessings must of course be said with kavanah, but lack of kavanah does not invalidate them.)

What is the point of the linguistic and halachic similarities? The purpose of Avot is to invoke and initiate our relationship with God, which is a vehicle for the prayer which we are beginning. In Modim, as we approach the end of the Shemoneh Esreh, the point is apparently to thank God for the relationship which allowed Shemoneh Esreh to be said.

Both Avot and the beginning of Modim are therefore "prayers about prayer". If you don't have kavanah in (for example) the blessing regarding rain, who knows, you may not merit to get rain. But if you lack kavanah in Avot or Modim, you never properly accepted upon yourself the basis for prayer, so your entire Shemoneh Esreh becomes invalid.

מודים אנחנו לך שאתה הוא ה' אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו. צור חיינו, מגן ישענו אתה הוא לדור ודור.

ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו, ... מלך עוזר ומושיע ומגן. ברוך אתה ה' מגן אברהם.

Second Section

This section differs from the first section, in that it does not seem to talk about our relationship with God, but about various individual deeds which God does for us. In particular, it recognizes God's sustaining us, providing life and performing miracles for us, on both a short-term and long-term basis.

Unlike with Avot, there is no exact verbal duplication of Gevurot in Modim. But the theme of Gevurot and this part of Modim are very similar. Both consist of lists of the various kindnesses which God performs for us. The lists are not identical (though both focus particularly on the continual sustaining of our lives). But the main point is not the choice of examples, but the fact that such examples exist. Whatever the specifics - and on different occasions, we approach God regarding different specifics - we acknowledge that God is the correct address for such inquiries.

נודה לך ונספר תהלתך, על חיינו המסורים בידיך, ועל נשמותינו הפקודות לך, ועל נסיך שבכל יום עמנו, ועל נפלאותיך וטובותיך שבכל עת, ערב ובוקר וצהרים. הטוב כי לא כלו רחמיך, והמרחם כי לא תמו חסדיך, כי מעולם קוינו לך.

אתה גבור לעולם ה', מחיה מתים אתה רב להושיע. משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם. מכלכל חיים בחסד, מחיה מתים ברחמים רבים, סומך נופלים ורופא חולים ומתיר אסורים, ומקיים אמונתו לישני עפר. מי כמוך בעל גבורות ומי דומה לך, מלך ממית ומחיה ומצמיח ישועה. ונאמן אתה להחיות מתים. ברוך אתה ה' מחיה המתים.

It's also worth noting the dual introduction to this part of Modim: "We must thank you, and recount your praise, for..." There are two distinct elements here: recognition and thanks. We are listing examples, and also expressing our feelings about each example.

One of the things we thank God for is "your wonders and good deeds which occur at all times - evening, morning, and afternoon." I think it's no coincidence that evening/morning/afternoon are the 3 times at which we pray. We are saying that whenever we pray, God listens to and responds to our prayer. "Vehaya terem yikreu va'ani aaneh".

Third Section

In this section, in contrast to the previous ones, the focus is not God or His deeds, but rather on our response to those deeds. We hope to praise God and recognize what he does for us. We hope to do this both constantly and forever, and expect that eventually all of humanity will join us. The idiom is that we praise not God, but rather His "name" or reputation. This emphasizes even more that we are focusing not on God, but on ourselves, on our own comprehension of and relation to God.

Virtually the same description applies to the third blessing of Shemoneh Esreh (Kedushat Hashem). Here too the focus is on our response: the constant praise and recognition of God, forever, involving all humanity.

ועל כולם יתברך ויתרומם שמך מלכינו תמיד לעולם ועד.
וכל החיים יודוך סלה, ויהללו ויברכו את שמך הגדול באמת לעולם כי טוב, האל ישועתינו ועזרתינו סלה, האל הטוב.
[ברוך אתה ה', הטוב שמך ולך נאה להודות.]

לדור ודור נגיד גדלך ולנצח נצחים קדושתך נקדיש...
אתה קדוש ושמך קדוש, וקדושים בכל יום יהללוך סלה, כי אל מלך גדול וקדוש אתה.
ויראוך כל המעשים, וישתחוו לפניך כל הברואים... ושמך נורא על כל מה שבראת. (ימים נוראים)


It appears that there are 3 distinct sections to Modim, which are very similar to the 3 "shevach" blessings at the beginning of Shemoneh Esreh.

Interestingly, Shemoneh Esreh as a whole has 3 sections as well. The first section is "shevach", the last "hodaah", and the middle consists of all the requests in the other blessings. Each of these sections corresponds to one of the 3 "shevach" blessings, as well as one of the 3 sections of Modim. That is to say, the structure of the first 3 blessings matches the structure of Modim, and both structures match the overall structure of Shemoneh Esreh.
  • The "shevach" unit serves to introduce our prayer. Avot itself introduces our authority to pray, and the first third of Modim is a thank-you for being able to pray.
  • The middle of Shemoneh Esreh is a series of specific requests. Gevurot lists the specific things God does for us, and the second third of Modim mentions those same things and thanks God for them.
  • The "hodaah" unit concludes the prayer by acknowledging and thanking God for what we receive from Him. Kedushat Hashem and the last third of Modim describe our thanking God, both now and in the future.
It therefore appears that Shemoneh Esreh begins with a "mini-Shemoneh-Esreh" in which we introduce, step-by-step, what we plan on doing. It also ends with a "mini-Shemoneh-Esreh" in which we summarize and conclude what we have done. In the middle is the body of specifics. On weekdays this body contains a long list of requests; on Shabbat and holidays it is entirely related to the theme of the day.

Positive memories

According to the Torah, the mitzvah of lulav is only on the first day of Sukkot, except in the Temple, where it applies all seven days. After the destruction, the rabbis decreed that we take the lulav all seven days, everywhere, as a remembrance to the Temple.

On various occasions throughout our lives we remember the Temple in other ways: fasting on Tisha Beav, breaking a glass at weddings, leaving part of one's house unpainted, avoiding singing and music in certain situations, and so on. Lulav appears to be odd company for these mournful customs. How can they all be classified as remembrances of the same thing?

It appears that there are two very different ways in which we remember the Temple. Tisha Beav is a remembrance of the catastrophe of destruction. Lulav, on the other hand, is a remembrance of the Temple as it was when it stood. Here we remember not the disaster of the past, but the glory of the past. This remembrance should engender not sadness but pride and joy.

Chazal wanted the joy a Jew would experience in the Temple, the overwhelming inspiration with which Temple visitors would be overcome, to continue even after the destruction. The great experience of standing before God would therefore be perpetuated throughout the generations. This is the goal of our lulav-waving on the last 6 days of Sukkot - perhaps differing from our goal on the first day.

(R' Soloveitchik, 1969)

[I would add: this, like Pesach and Yom Kippur mussaf and sukkah and who knows what else, seems to be an example of reenactment and re-living in addition to simply remembering.]

[I originally thought this contradicted my discussion of lulav from last year, but on second thought, what I wrote could accurately describe what happened in the Temple. For us today outside the Temple, the added aspect of remembrance would add complexity and create room for disagreement.]

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Chag sameach

"You shall keep the feast of Shavuot... You shall rejoice before Hashem your God - you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite within your gates, and the stranger and orphan and widow who are amongst you - in the place Hashem your God will choose for His name to dwell in." (Devarim 16:10-11)

It's worth noting where this holiday feast will take place, as well as where the participants come from. The holiday of course must be celebrated in Jerusalem. But "you", the average person, are coming from somewhere else in Israel. So, for that matter, are the stranger/orphan/widow/Levite who are sharing your hospitality - they, who live "amongst you" and "in your gates", not in Jerusalem. It is not just a matter of inviting them for one meal. You have to invite them for the entire holiday, and pay all their travel expenses as well, if they themselves cannot afford it. Otherwise they would not be able to come, and you must ensure that they can come.

When we make reservations for our exclusive glatt kosher hotel holiday vacations, how many of us remember to pay for the local poor people to come along with us? But, at least when the Temple stands, that is exactly what the Torah requires.

Desert booths

There are many Jewish holidays on which we not only remember, but are required to reenact and see ourselves as participating in the events we commemorate. The most obvious example is Pesach, on which "a person must see himself as if he left Egypt" (Pesachim 116b). Another good example is Yom Kippur; in mussaf we reenactment that day's Temple service, to the point of bowing down at the same occasions when people in the Temple would have.

Sukkot may be another such holiday. Sukkah is one of the few mitzvot for which the Torah gives a particular rationale: "So that your generations know that I housed the children of Israel when I took them out of the land of Egypt" (Vayikra 23:43). Part of the mitzvah's purpose is therefore to reminds us of our temporary housing as we traveled from Egypt to Canaan. We accomplish this by moving to temporary housing of our own. What is the point of this reminder?

Once you leave the desert and establish a rich and powerful country, you are in danger of ascribing your accomplishments to your personal strength, "kochi veotzem yadi", and not to God's help. Sukkot takes place at the end of the agricultural year, when fruit has ripened on the trees and the harvested grain is gathered in from the field. Specifically in this season, when you are richest and most at ease, you are most in danger of forgetting the reliance on God you learned in the desert.

For that reason, on Sukkot you are called to reenter the desert. You rely not on the walls and ceiling of your house, but on the weak and permeable sukkah. In truth the sukkah doesn't really protect you at all from the elements, and you are really relying directly on God, on His metaphorical "clouds of glory" which surround you. This is the same situation you were in in the desert, and during Sukkot you reenact it. The word "atzeret" in Shemini Atzeret is related to "maatzar", meaning confinement. Once Sukkot ends you are once again "confined" to your permanent home, no longer roaming around the desert as you symbolically did during Sukkot.

The theme of reentering the desert is especially relevant this year, at the beginning of a shemitah year. For shemitah, too, is a kind of reentry into the desert. Once every seven years, you rely not on the crops you have farmed, but on the natural growth which God has placed in the fields. It is the closest you can come to reenacting the gathering of manna in the desert. And on Sukkot at the conclusion of every shemitah year, you hold the "hakhel" ceremony, in which the entire nation gathers to hear the Torah and reenact the covenant at Sinai.

Thus, on Sukkot following the shemitah year, you return to the desert in terms of your food supply (which has grown during shemitah), your dwelling (the transient sukkah), and acceptance of the Torah (the hakhel assembly). This year we have the first two elements; we are living in sukkot and we are already forbidden to plant new crops.

Sukkot takes place at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. Perhaps for this reason we read Kohelet, which talks about the meaninglessness of the constant repetition of life. Periodically, we must soul-search and make sure we are in fact changing and advancing. To spark this process, we recreate the unique spiritual experience of the desert, with its Divine protection, sustenance, and revelation. Charged with enthusiasm from this experience, we can then rededicate ourselves to living meaningful permanent lives in the symbolic and literal land of Israel.

(Mostly from R' Yaakov Medan, some from R' Yoni Grossman and myself)

Thursday, September 20, 2007


אלקי, עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי
ועכשיו שנוצרתי - כאילו לא נוצרתי.

"My God, before being created I was not worthy (?).
Now that I am created, it is as if I was not created."

(Yom Kippur shemoneh esreh, at the very end)

I was created for a purpose.
I was not worthy - I did not have a purpose (before being created).
It is as if I was not created - I have failed to fulfill my purpose.

(R' Kook)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Thoughts on Yonah

Yonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before God... (1:3)

We read Sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur because it mentions not only the repentance of the sailors and Ninevians, but also the repentance of Yonah. God gives him a task, yet he flees from that task, as quickly as he can to as far away as possible. Of course, fleeing from your assigned task does not work. After three days in the fish, Yonah realizes that his only option is to flee back to God, through his prayer, to the task which has been assigned to him.

It is in our nature to flee from our assigned tasks in life. Hopefully we can realize the futility of this flight before reaching the metaphorical "belly of the fish", the lowest and most degraded point imaginable. But in the event that we have fled this far, we must realize that only one further destination remains, and that is to flee back to God.

"And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time." (T.S. Eliot)

(cf. R' Baruch Gigi, 9/15/07)

"Should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120000 people who cannot discern between their right and left hands, and many domestic animals?" (4:11)

The weird part of this rhetorical question is clearly the mention of animals. How can they be equated with human beings in terms of God's attention and mercy?

There is one previous mention of domestic animals in Sefer Yonah. When Yonah first came to Nineveh and announced that the city would be destroyed, the people decided to repent. They fasted and put on sackcloth - and made their cattle and sheep fast and put on sackcloth as well. (3:7-8) It seems that God's final comment to Yonah, mentioning the people of Nineveh along with their animals, is an allusion to the people's previous choice to include the animals in the fast.

Now, thinking that your animals too must fast is not exactly an example of spiritual sophistication. It seems that the Ninevians do not fully comprehend the nature of moral autonomy and free choice, which humans possess and cattle do not. As God says, they "cannot discern between their right and left hands" - they are spiritually clueless. And yet, given the opportunity, they leave their evil deeds and choose to repent.

We, who are better educated and recognize that cattle are cattle and humans are human beings, can learn from the example of Nineveh. If even these spiritually clueless people can and do make the choice to repent, then what about us?

What sin?

Why do we say "vehu rachum yechaper avon" immediately after Yom Kippur, right at the moment when our sins have just been forgiven?

Perhaps this is because you cannot really ask for forgiveness until you realize the magnitude of what you have done. Once you reach this point, even if you have formal atonement, you will run to ask for forgiveness on your own initiative.

We fully reach this point only at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

(R' Haim Druckman, Hoshana Rabba '06)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Oseh Hashalom

This time of year, some of us replace the phrase "hamevarech et amo yisrael bashalom" in our prayers with "oseh hashalom".

The reason is apparently kabbalistic. According to R' Chaim Vital, the word "hashalom" has the same gematria as "Safriel" - the name of the angel who records people in the book of life. Thus "oseh hashalom" alludes to the special character of the day.

(I find this explanation reasonable because "oseh hashalom" adds little to the meaning of "hamevarech et amo yisrael bashalom", and in fact takes away the reference to Israel. Thus at face value it is hardly an enhancement to the text. The only possible gain is in the gematria. Furthermore, the gematria would also explain the shift from "shalom" to "hashalom" in kaddish.)

I should perhaps mention that I personally do not say "oseh hashalom" in shemoneh esreh, though I might say it in kaddish.


Monday, September 17, 2007


For the first time in... ever?, I have zero messages in my Gmail inbox. Incredible.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Day of Shofar

There are a number of ritual mitzvot - lulav, shema, megillah, chanukah candles, prayer, bedikat chametz - regarding which you may not be allowed to eat in the morning/evening before performing the mitzvah. This is meant to encourage you to do the mitzvot ASAP and not delay. But for the mitzvah of shofar in particular, this prohibition on eating may not exist, or else may be weaker than for other mitzvot. Why?

I would like to add an explanation to the ones in the above-linked article. For most normal mitzvot, the mitzvah is to do a particular action. For example, once you have finished "taking" the lulav and "talking of" the shema, you have "gotten these mitzvot over with" and there is no more obligation. To discourage unnecessarily delays in "getting them over with", you are not supposed to eat beforehand. (The phrase "get them over with" makes it sound like mitzvot are an annoying burden, which they shouldn't be, but it accurately conveys the attitude of "when it's done, it's done".)

Shofar is different. The Torah does not say "you shall blow the shofar", but rather "you shall have a day of shofar-blowing". The mitzvah of shofar is not to perform a particular action, but to create a certain mood for the entire day. No matter when you blow the shofar, the exact same day becomes imbued with the essence of shofar. In a sense, blowing the shofar is not the mitzvah but just a means to the mitzvah. Therefore, it is less crucial that it be done at the first possible opportunity.

There is another possible approach which follows from the same basic ideas. Rosh Hashanah is a "day of shofar-blowing", but it is also a day characterized by other things, such as eating a yom-tov meal. There is no reason to privilege one aspect of the day over another, so you are allowed to eat first as well as blow the shofar first.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Perspectives on Rosh Hashanah

Summarized from "Berosh Hashanah Yikatevun" (Michlelet Hertzog, edited by R' Bazak)

The calendar and the new year (R' Yoel Bin Nun)

RH is not quite the "beginning of the year" as a literal translation would indicate. From Tanach it is clear that the entire period between RH and Shemini Atzeret is the "beginning of the year". RH is simply the "beginning of the beginning of the year", the first day of the period which marks the transition between years. Thus, Yovel is announced on Yom Kippur, which is not after the beginning of the year, but rather in the middle of the beginning of the year.

We can also explain why Yom Kippur is on the 10th day of the month, unlike any other holiday. In a non-leap-year, Yom Kippur falls 364 days, plus or minus one, after the previous RH. Thus, we are being judged, almost exactly, for what we have done over the previous solar year - from last RH until this Yom Kippur. RH and YK are different dates from each other, but they fall within the same *period* of transition between years.

Reenactment (R' Yoni Grossman)

Pesach is obviously a holiday in which we not only remember, but are required to reenact and see ourselves as having left Egypt. Other holidays also require us to "pretend". Chanukah candles have several laws which are taken from the laws of the Temple menorah, implying that our lighting is a reenactment of the Temple lighting. And Yom Kippur mussaf includes a reenactment of that day's service, in which we bow down just when people in the Temple would.

The same may be true of RH. In your thoughts and prayers, you experience the creation of the world. That is to say, you feel what it means to have creation from nothingness, and are aware of the fact that you are such a creation.

The Rosh Hashanah offering (R' Avraham Walfish, plus a little from myself)

RH is the only holiday on which the main mitzvah of the day is not related to the Temple. (This is of course connected to the fact that it is also probably the most universal holiday, and the one least centered on the Jewish people.)

On the three agricultural holidays (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), special offerings were brought in the Temple (omer/barley, bikurim/fruit, water libations, respectively) as recognition of the fact that Israel was about to be judged regarding that season's agricultural aspect (grain harvest, fruit harvest, rain). In each case, what you offered as a sacrifice was the same product which you hope to receive.

On RH, judgment is not passed on a particular agricultural product. Instead, general judgment is passed on humans as individuals. Therefore, the "offering" which we need to bring consists of ourselves - that is to say, our attitude during the prayers, reflecting our new and improved moral qualities. We have been working on these aspects of our personality during Elul, and now it is time to present them to God.

The mitzvah of the shofar is unusual in that we are required not to blow the shofar, but to hear its blowing. (Granted, there is controversy about this in the sources, but certainly there is some independent value to the hearing.) The mitzvah thus focuses on your experience of the shofar, and not simply on the physical action. Apparently this is because the shofar's main purpose is to affect us emotionally. It helps us achieve the emotional state which we can then "offer" to God as a "sacrifice".

Kiddush hachodesh (R' Yehudah Shaviv)

The mishna in RH starts off with two chapters on kiddush hachodesh and only then discusses the shofar and the RH prayers. This is the case because kiddush hachodesh is actually, functionally, a crucial mitzvah on RH. When kiddush hachodesh was not automatic, everyone would be staring up at the sky on the night of RH to find out if they were really celebrating RH or if it was just a weekday after all. The "night" mitzvah of RH was kiddush hachodesh, and the "day" mitzvah was shofar, so it makes sense that kiddush hachodesh is listed first.

On selichot

We are taught at every level of Jewish education to be proud of our level of religiousness. In a world where so many people are not Jewish, and so many Jews are not religious, we see ourselves as the sole representatives of God. This message is good and necessary because without it, it would be much harder to motivate ourselves in sometimes hostile surroundings.

However, at one time of year - during selichot - we need the opposite message. The main theme of selichot is that we are utterly worthless. We begin with a long list of praises of God's greatness, and we are insignificant in comparison. We ask for mercy not because we have any legitimate claim to mercy, but only because of promises to the Avot, Moshe, and appeals to God's honor.

It is like someone asking for a job, who admits they are incompetent, but wants the salary anyway in return for a favor his relative once did for the employer. Anyone would be embarrassed to ask in such a manner. We too should be embarrassed to approach God this way, but we have no alternative.

(Summarized from a shiur by R' Ezra Bick, 9/16/2006)

Friday, September 07, 2007

The paragraph we say seven times

(Tehillim 47)

1 (For the conductor; a song by the descendants of Korach.)

2 Let all the peoples clap ["tiku"] their hands, and shout ["hariu"] to God with a voice of exultation.
3            For Hashem is supreme, awesome; a great king over all the earth.
4            He subdued peoples beneath us, and nations under our feet.
5            He chose our inheritance for us, the pride of Yaakov whom He loves. (Selah)
6 God has ascended amidst [shofar] blowing, Hashem amidst the sound of the shofar.

7 Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.
8            For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises in skillful song.
9 God reigns over the nations; God sits upon His holy throne.

10 The princes of the peoples are gathered, together [with] the people of the God of Avraham; for to God belong the shields of the earth; He is greatly exalted.

[This was hard to translate well; I had to check NIV online as well as JPS. Wish I had time to look this up in the beit midrash.]

Before blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we say this paragraph of Tehilim seven times. I am surely not the first person to have mumbled it repeatedly without having any idea of what it means or why we are saying it. So this year, I decided to take a closer look at it ahead of time.

As I divided it above (there are other possibilities), it seems there is a "byline" (verse 1), as well as a conclusion (verse 10). In between there are two similar sections. Each section follows the same pattern: (1) a request that the nations praise God; (2) reasons why they should praise God; (3) what happens once they praise God. The conclusion verse (10) summarizes the entire scene.

The setting is apparently in the Temple, where Jews and non-Jews have gathered for some kind of worship. The historical background, according to verses 4 and 5, is military success. Due to our preeminence over the other nations, those nations come to recognize the (more meaningful) preeminence of our God. Thus they come to Jerusalem and join our worship service.

Assuming that (as part of Sefer Tehilim) this psalm was written in the time of David Hamelech, the military background makes perfect sense. In David's time the Israelites conquered most of modern Syria and Jordan as well as Israel. For the first and only time Israel became an international "superpower", with all the attention that status entails. One generation later, when Shlomo was king, the queen of Sheba famously came to check out his kingdom as well as his religion. This psalm seems to be talking about a similar visit, occurring a few years earlier, in David's lifetime.

The language in verse 2 is interesting. The non-Jews clap their hands and sing, but the verbs used to describe this normally refer to shofar blowing, not to voices. I think there is a deep thematic meaning to this choice of words. We Jews praise God through mitzvot such as shofar. Non-Jews do not have these mitzvot, so they praise God through simpler means - their voices and clapping. While their method of praise is different, the language used to describe it is the same. This implies that the praise of Jews and non-Jews is integrated together, is regarded as if from a common source, resulting in a single unit of praise arising from all mankind.

The psalm's connection to Rosh Hashana should be clear. Of course there is the obvious mention of the shofar, but the connection is much deeper than that. God is recognized as supreme, awesome, ruler not only of Jews, but of the entire world. This is the main theme of Rosh Hashana, and it is reflected perfectly in this psalm. Also, along with the sounds of the shofar come the voices of individuals who accept God's dominion through their song and speech. This combination introduces us to the shofar blowing and to Rosh Hashana mussaf, in which the shofar is paired with and complemented by our prayers.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Mimacharat hashabbat

The mitzva of counting the Omer begins "mimacharat hashabbat" (Vayikra 23:11) - on the day after the "shabbat". "Shabbat" here is traditionally understood by Jews to mean the first day of Pesach, not the 7th day of the week. The question of whether this traditional interpretation is correct has been discussed to death. I have just one thought to add on the matter.

I was reading a book on Ethiopian Jewry, which said that according to their tradition, "mimacharat hashabbat" refers to the seventh day of Pesach.

Now, we know that Ethiopian "halacha" as it has reached us bears no apparent relation to the halachic traditions of the Mishna, Gemara, and later mainstream Jewish authorities. Rather, it seems to be based on a "literal" understanding of the written Torah, similar to the Karaite approach. Indeed, as we see here, the Ethiopians disagreed with the rabbinic interpretation that "shabbat" means the first day of Pesach. And yet, they did not concur with the Karaite opinion either. Independently of the rabbis, Ethiopian Jews came to the conclusion that "shabbat" actually refers to a holiday.

How did the Ethiopians reach this conclusion? I don't know. By reading the articles I linked to above, you will find a variety of arguments for this view, which is our view. I presume that the Karaites can produce a similar array of arguments in the opposite direction. Deciding the correct meaning of the verse may be the kind of judgment call which depends as much on your prior expectations and modes of thought as on the objective strength of the arguments. And I don't know what were the prior expectations of the Ethiopians, nor of the Karaites.

But let it not be said that the only tenable interpretation is that "shabbat" means Saturday, that the rabbis distorted or overrode the verse's plain meaning. We have a data point which proves otherwise. The Ethiopians had no "rabbinic agenda" and nevertheless decided that the basic rabbinic view was most reasonable.

Perhaps, as hard as it is for Karaites and certain scholars to admit this, the rabbinic tradition is not a series of wanton distortions for partisan purposes, but rather an honest attempt to integrate textual analysis and intellectual reflection with the received body of tradition.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Last Sunday I visited the city of Shechem (or "Nablus" from the Roman "Neapolis") in the northern West Bank. Not the actual city, which would probably have resulted in my lynching at the hands of a Palestinian mob, but the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh next door. This is a very out-of-the-way location; it took three buses to get there and another three to get home again. But after Jerusalem, Shechem is probably the most historically and Jewishly significant location in Israel, so it was worth the time spent traveling.

Shechem became important due to its unique geographical location. It is in a narrow valley between two prominent mountains, Mt. Gerizim and Eival. The modern city of Nablus fills the length of the valley, but ancient Shechem was located right at the valley entrance, where two of the most important roads in ancient Israel meet. Forming a triangle with Mt. Gerizim and Eival is Mt. Kabir, a smaller mountain standing opposite the entrance to the valley. Elon Moreh is located on the slope of Mt. Kabir.

Standing on Mt. Kabir, you can look west and see Shechem. Looking north and east, you see the road which leads from Shechem, around Mt. Kabir, and down a fertile valley towards the Jordan River. This road was perhaps the most important entryway to Israel in ancient times. When Avraham Avinu came to Israel from Mesopotamia, the first location he stopped in was Shechem (Breishit 12:6). Similarly, when Yaakov returned from Haran, the first place he settled was in Shechem (33:18).

In last week's parsha (Devarim 27:1-8), Moshe commands the people to write the "words of the Torah" on large stones, which would be placed on Mt. Eival - right next to Shechem. This may be because so many visitors entered Israel through Shechem. Just like Ellis Island is accompanied by the Statue of Liberty, which declares American values to newcomers, so newcomers to Shechem would be greeted by the text of the Torah - our own statement of values.

Returning to Yaakov, his story in Shechem continued. He bought a piece of land, settled down, became a respected citizen, and like Avraham built an altar to spread awareness of God. But one day his daughter Dinah was kidnapped and raped by the local prince (Breishit 34). This prince then requested Yaakov's permission to marry her. Yaakov's sons asked the prince and his people to be circumcised first. But this offer was insincere; while they recuperated from circumcision Shimon and Levi came and massacred them. Whether or not the prince and his people deserved this punishment, the manner in which Shimon and Levi carried it out was a gigantic "chillul hashem". Yaakov and his family were forced to retreat southward from Shechem, in fear and disgrace.

(Interaction between Jews and non-Jews is a constant theme in Shechem. Avraham and Yaakov both built altars there, evidently trying to spread monotheism to the local population. Yaakov's efforts ended in failure when his sons committed an embarrassing massacre. Later on Yehoshua apparently had friendly relations with Shechem and did not have to wipe out its population. Regarding the current inhabitants of Elon Moreh and neighboring settlements, I wonder: do they tend to follow the model of Avraham? Or the model of Shimon and Levi? I don't really know and will avoid expressing an opinion on the matter.)

We next hear of Shechem in Breishit 37:14-17. Yaakov's sons had gone to herd sheep in Shechem, and Yosef went to meet them. He wandered around Shechem for a while looking for them, until a helpful person spotted him and told him they have moved on to Dotan. In Dotan, of course, Yosef was abducted by the same brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt.

When the Israelites left Egypt centuries later, Shechem was the first place they visit in Israel (after the initial battles of Jericho and Ay). Why did they go there so soon? I and others have argued that there was a prior familial alliance between the Israelites and the people of Shechem. Thus it was natural, as well as possible, for them to visit Shechem and hold the ceremonies described in Devarim 27. Six tribes gathered on Mt. Gerizim and six on Mt. Eival, with the Levites and the Mishkan in between (see Yehoshua 8:30-35). There they read the blessings and curses, built an altar and offered sacrifices on it, and wrote the "words of the Torah" on large stones as mentioned above.

Devarim 27:11-13 lists which tribes were to stand on Mt. Gerizim (Shimon, Yehudah, Levi, Binyamin, Yosef, Yissachar) and which on Mt. Eval (Reuven, Gad, Zevulun, Dan, Naftali, Asher). The division is puzzling, but I think it can be understood geographically. The tribes on Mt. Gerizim, the southern/southwestern mountain, inherited land in southern and central Israel. The tribes on Mt. Eival, the northern/northeastern mountain, inherited land in northern and eastern Israel. (Compare the order of tribes above to that in "Vezot Habracha", another geographical listing.)

In between the mountains, and the groups of tribes, is Shechem - the geographic center of the land of Israel. The biblically commanded borders of the land (Bamidbar 34:1-15) exclude much of the Negev desert, but they do include a significant part of modern Lebanon. Thus the center of the country was north of the modern center (let us say Jerusalem) - and in fact, was probably very close to Shechem. Mt. Gerizim therefore represented the southern half of the country, and Mt. Eival the northern half.

Also in between the mountains were the Levites (at least some of them) and the Mishkan. When the 12 tribes looked across the valley at each other, they also looked at the Mishkan in between them. The Mishkan was in the valley of Shechem, literally at the center of the country. Each Israelite, whether located on the north or south mountain, literally looked towards the Mishkan for spiritual guidance. Symbolically, this was to continue after they went to live in the the north and south of the country. This is the significance of the ceremony at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival.

When the land of Israel was apportioned among the tribes, Shechem became a Levite city and a city of refuge. (Yehoshua 17:7, 20:7) It is the middle of the three refuge cities in the newly conquered land, testifying to its centrality. The body of Yosef, which had been taken from Egypt, was buried in Yaakov's old plot of land in Shechem. Nowadays "Kever Yosef" is a Jewish holy site, which unfortunately was sacked and Islamicized by Palestinians a few years ago.

A few years later, another ceremony was held in Shechem (Yehoshua 24). There Yehoshua (perhaps rhetorically) offers the people the chance to leave God and worship idols instead. They refuse, and a new covenant with God is concluded. At this point the Mishkan was still in Shechem, though later in Yehoshua's life it moved to Shiloh, where it would stay for several centuries.

After Yehoshua's death, the Israelites turned to idolatry and, despite the efforts of the "judges" (actually, for the most part, military leaders), they gradually did worse and worse in conflicts with their enemies. One of the most successful judges was Gideon. After his greatest military victory, the people asked him to become king, but he refused (Shoftim 8:22-23). But after his death, his son Avimelech declared himself to be king, and ruled for 3 years in Shechem before precipitating a civil war in which he died (Shoftim 9). The monarchy was only (re)established much later, with Shaul.

After Shlomo Hamelech died, his son Rechavam went to Shechem to be appointed king over all Israel (Melachim A 12:1-19). But when Rechavam declared his intention to increase their labor load, the 10 northern tribes rebelled and formed a kingdom of their own. Their first king was Yeravam, whose initial capital was Shechem.

From the stories of Avimelech, Rechavam, and Yeravam, we see that Shechem was the natural seat of the Israelite monarchy. Kings Shaul and David had located their capitals in their respective tribal centers (Givah and Hebron), and David later moved the capital to a compromise location, Jerusalem, on the border between his tribe and Shaul's. But except for these tribal locations, the only capital considered was Shechem. (Later on the capital of the northern kingdom would move to Penuel, Tirtzah, and Shomron - for reasons probably related to tribal and dynastic conflict.)

To summarize, Shechem was traversed and settled by generations of our ancestors, from Avraham, Yaakov, and Yosef to Yehoshua, Gideon, and Rechavam. In addition to simply being an important city with historical associations, Shechem was the literal and symbolic geographic center of the land of Israel, and thus the most central city of refuge and the historical seat of the Israelite monarchy. This political centrality was supplemented for a time by the spiritual centrality of the Mishkan and the covenant which was made in Shechem. Furthermore, as an important entryway to Israel, it symbolized the land, and the values of its inhabitants, to outsiders.

Jerusalem is the overall center of the Jewish religion. But Shechem is the center of the Land of Israel, and for centuries was the center of the Jewish nation. For this reason it is worth visiting, even if only once, even if you cannot actually approach but must simply look from afar.